Coping with addiction in the family

To cope with addiction, you need to learn to let some things go. This explanation and practical exercise can help!

minute read

Putting it Down and Letting it Go

There is a story in Buddhist teaching about letting go of things that keep us from experiencing our own lives. The story goes like this:

There were two monks walking, an older monk and a younger monk. They walked for a time in silence next to a river. After a while the came to a spot for crossing but the bridge had been washed away. A wealthy woman was on the far side of the river with her attendants. She had many packages and the attendants could not carry the woman and the packages across the river without putting something down which was not acceptable to her. She was screaming at them violently. The older monk crossed the river, picked up the woman and brought her to the other side, while her attendants came over with her packages and chair. The monk returned her to her chair as she kept yelling and shouting at everyone around her. The two monks continued one way and the woman went the other way. After several hours of walking the younger monk couldn’t stand it no more and shouted himself, “How could you be so kind, how could you stand there and just take everything she was saying to you, that woman was horrible and rude and did not deserve kindness.” The older monk looked at him and said gently, “I put her down hours ago, why are you still carrying her?” The two monks walked on.

Living with an alcoholic or addict…without resentment

When you live with an alcoholic or an addict there is a tendency to hold onto a lot of things that keep us from fully experiencing our own lives. To cope with family members with addiction problems, we hold resentment, we hold anger, and often we hold responsibility for another person. All things that we need to let go of in order to be able to live fully present in our own lives, to manage our responsibilities, and to create boundaries that keep us healthy.

It takes a long time to learn this but the problem of alcoholism or addiction is not in what the user is doing, it is in how we respond to that user. Blaming others for alcoholism or addiction won’t help. Once we accept that someone else’s substance use is not something we caused, not something we can control, and not something that we can cure… it is possible to emotionally separate from that use and live our own lives. It is like the older monk putting down the angry woman. Once he put her down, he left her and was not impacted by her behavior in the rest of his journey. The younger monk held onto resentment and instead of being able to see all of the beauty around him. He experienced only anger.

We are not responsible to carry addiction

When someone we care about abuses drugs or alcohol they are affirmatively acting in a way that will negatively impact their lives. When we let that behavior ruin our day, our week, our month, whatever it is… we are making a choice to hold onto something that we are not actually responsible for carrying. This does not mean that you stop feeling, or that you try to hide an addiction issue, or that wounds that were created in the relationship just disappear.

What is does mean is that we can make a choice to put down the old destructive experience and make room for taking care of ourselves and living our own lives. If you spend all your time focused on the user then you run out of time to focus on what you need, what you like, and how you actually feel in the moment you are living.

An exercise to make room for yourself

Try this exercise for at least seven days in a row to help you start living right now:

  1. Every hour from 9am to 9pm write down how you feel. This can be as simple as one word or a short sentence.
  2. Three times a day (early, mid-day and at night) write down what you need exactly in the moment. This is practical, for instance ‘I need to go to the bathroom;’ ‘I need to eat;’ or ‘I need to go to sleep.’
  3. Once a day write down at least one thing that you have NO control over. This can be as simple or as complicated as you want, for instance ‘I can’t control how fast an hour goes by;’ or ‘I can’t control if there are clouds in the sky;’ or ‘I can’t make my mom/dad/partner/friend eat a banana.’

At the end of the week look at everything you have written down and ask yourself what you are still holding onto that has actually been put down, and what you can now put down to make more room for yourself in your life!

About the author
Maggie Harmon is a writer, speaker, leadership coach and business consultant who approaches every engagement through a holistic understanding of the situation. Her consulting practice focuses on deeply understanding who or what you are and what you want to achieve, and from there helping to create a plan, develop tools, and access resources that let you get where it is you want to go, and do what you do, better! You can connect with her here or via Maggie's Blog.
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